September 1, 2016

Fiction by Laura Saint Martin: "Helen at the Funeral Home"

I am a new writer with two poems published and a mystery series in the works. I live in Rancho Cucamonga, CA, have an Assoc. of Arts from Mt San Antonio College and work at Patton State Hospital.

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Helen at the funeral home
The funeral home smelled like ancient evenings, like wax and mothballs, reminding Helen of the old missions she had toured as a child, the clothing and furniture kept in stasis. The home was one of the oldest institutions in Pomona. Older even than Helen’s lifelong feud with her sister Grace.
“Good morning,” a business-like voice offered. It belonged to a man in polo shirt and casual slacks, who shook both their hands. No stiff suit or starchy platitudes, and Helen liked that. “If you’ll just follow me in here?” The man led the two of them into an antique-filled side room, sat them at an ornate table.
Helen and Grace settled themselves, their unease weaponized. The man slid a binder in their direction.
“So, your father stated in his will that he wished to be cremated?”
Helen and Grace both nodded.
The man nodded back. “Okay, you have the option of purchasing an urn, or you can have his ashes scattered. There are many companies who will do this. It’s illegal for you to scatter them yourselves, although people do it all the time, in their backyards. I’m not telling you to do it…” The sentence was left to dangle. Grace looked to Helen, but Helen stared down at the binder.
“We’ll just take the ashes, no urn,” Helen made the decision.
“Yes, that would be the most cost-efficient way to go.” Helen sensed no judgement in the man’s voice, just pragmatic honesty.
Yes. Exactly how it should be done. Helen found it more comforting to parse out the mechanics, without sentiment. Any attempt to frame a condolence would ring false from this professional.
“So, we will call you when the ashes are ready to be picked up. It should take three to four days, within a week at most.’
Dry-eyed, Helen nodded. Grace watched her, but Helen gripped her hard line.
“Would you like to view the body? Not necessary, but some people prefer to.”
Helen knew Grace wasn’t up for the task. Her ingrained fear of corpses aside, Grace would not dirty her hands with the more unsavory tasks of life. Helen, a seasoned nurse, did not share the superstitious terror of her mother’s culture, had seen more than her fair share of dead bodies. She rose without a glance at her sister.
Her father lay on a gurney, clothed in nothing but a sheet up to his collarbone. She heaved a sigh, feeling her chronic sleep-deprivation as an ache in her chest.
He looks so young!
Her father’s face looked smooth, clean-shaven. He could pass for fifty, certainly not his ninety three years. He looked thinner than Helen remembered.
She looked around for hidden cameras. She imagined herself on film right that minute, some sardonic indie comedy or underacted book-turned-film, a Sundance award winner. She wondered what she was expected to do, felt awkward, even with the dead. Was she supposed to cry and tear her hair? Give the body a chaste kiss? Or throw herself onto him and send them both rolling onto the floor? An inopportune smile tickled when she pictured Nicole Kidman slapping a corpse in Practical Magic. Helen’s lips twisted as she tasted these scenarios, found them all wanting. Her eyes darted around the room, killing time for the fulfillment of some neurotypical requirement.
Yes, that is my father, all parts appear to be in order, no signs of abuse or theft.
Why am I here?
Helen walked out, bland as chalk, the face that launched a thousand police reports.

The sun was equally bland, infuriating. No lugubrious overcast, no funeral marches or engulfed bells. Grace shifted from foot to booted foot. Helen squinted, done living up to the expectations of the normal world. Her lips tightened, armored against the brewing confrontation.
“Dad told me. Before he died.” Grace was a little breathless.
Helen focused on the spires of the church across the street. At least they were appropriate, grandly Gothic.
“Told you what?” Helen turned in the direction of her sister, but kept her eyes away, a clear message.
I don’t give a flying fuck.
“The truth. About Mom.”
Helen, feeling especially cruel, left the words there, hoping they would grow teeth and bite Grace in the throat.
Grace, always uncomfortable in silence of any form, particularly the silence Helen chose to wrap herself up in like lengths of silk, cleared her throat. “He told me what really happened, when Wesley died. That she was drunk, passed out, left you to watch an infant when you were barely out of diapers yourself.”
Helen sifted her silence through her fingers, her favorite stim, felt it slip, the colors of her internal world sanctifying the sarcastic sunlight. She watched Grace bleed uncertainties, offered nothing to staunch the flow.
“Look, Helen, I’m really sorry.” Tears formed in Grace’s Sephora eyeliner. “Mom never allowed us to be sisters. She never allowed us to play, fight, share what real sisters share.”
Helen dredged up something acidic to pour in Grace’s wounds. “Oh, shit, Grace. You sound like a fucking Hallmark card. Makes me kinda wanna puke.”
Grace forced a breath out. “Just get in the car. I’ll take you home.”
Helen gave a ghetto grimace. “I’ll take a taxi.”
“Crap, Helen, get in the car.” But Helen was already at the crosswalk, phone to her ear.

Helen rarely rode in the back of any car, hated the loss of control. She went on an involuntary time warp as the taxi headed north.
Helen and Grace, captives in their mother’s alcoholic fumes, her fury, the back seat of her disobedient Buick. Dusty blue highways, country of the neglected. Helen saw the dog first. Mother never did.
The dog’s dying howls and Helen’s contrapuntal meltdown went unremarked on that lonely stretch of who-gives-a-shit. No one to see Mother drag Helen out of the car by her hair, no one to hear Helen beg, hear the heavy stick, abandoned by some long-ago tree, scour the autism out of Helen’s skin, without success. No one to know Helen was left behind, circling the tragedy, the dog circling the drain with whimpers and dirty red. Left to watch its broken ghost sizzle up from the pavement.
No one except Grace.
Helen never knew what transpired at home, how her father knew to come pick her up, so late the sun choked on its own blood in the agonal afternoon.
Grace knew.
In Daddy’s back seat, Grace glared, mouthed “I hate you.”
Daddy’s eyes, in their chronic denial, missed it.
Helen glanced again at her eyes in the rearview mirror of the taxi, at her stone face, unpretty and unforgiving. The taxi driver made no attempt at niceties. Grace’s apology was less substantial than cigarette smoke, left no trace for Helen’s consideration.
How the fuck do you not upset an apple cart with broken handles and one goddamned wheel?

~Laura Saint Martin

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